The strong Australian display at the Giro d’Italia continued Wednesday with both Cadel Evans and Michael Matthews in the hunt for the stage win and the latter retaining his Maglia Rosa of race leader.

The race to Viggiano was the toughest finish yet of the race, featuring as it did an uphill drag to the line. The climbing specialists came to the fore and fought it out for the victory, with Lampre Merida rider Diego Ulissi following up his 2011 stage win in the race with another well timed and successful attack.

He surged inside the final 200 metres and opened a one second gap by the line, but Evans in second and Matthews in sixth showed that they were amongst the strongest.

Surprisingly, Evans said that he didn’t feel good in the finale. “After days with rain and cold, my legs are not at their best,” he stated. “In the final I was a little blocked with one kilometer to go and without help. But I got back in front and into second place. In the end, l am happy about the result.”

In that light, and providing his legs feel better in the days ahead, the Australian can be optimistic about his chances of fighting for the overall honours in the race. He has jumped to third overall and has time in hand over all of his rivals for the general classification.

Matthews has a very different set of goals in the race, but he too climbed well today. Gaps opened up inside the final kilometre as first Nicolas Roche (Tinkoff Saxo) and then a number of other riders ramped up the pace. Matthews was able to drag the group back up to those who had pulled slightly clear and rolled across the line in a very solid sixth position.

“It didn’t quite pan out the way I thought,” he said afterwards. “I had a mental picture in which there were lots of attacks, but I think everyone was pinned and no one could get away. I think it was Quintana who dropped the wheel in front, so it was up to me to close the gap.

“Rodriguez and team mates were ahead, with Edvald Boasson Hagen. I was a bit pinned when I got to them and I didn’t quite have the sprint I would have liked. But up to there, I was good.”

Matthews had said at both Saturday and Sunday’s conferences that he hoped to fight for the win on stages five and six. Today was the first of those and while the stage victory proved a goal too high, he retained the race leader’s jersey and showed his form is very good.

“Today’s stage was the big goal for me,” he said, reflecting on his Maglia Rosa. “We showed we really deserved this jersey. We proved today that we have a really strong team, because to keep the jersey and to be able to have a good crack at the finish you need a good team.

“They set a tempo that didn’t really let anyone move. They did an amazing job. To be in the final with all these climbers is really nice for me.”

The race continues Thursday with another uphill finish, the climb to Montecassino. Matthews took encouragement from Wednesday’s stage and said he’ll see what is possible.

“My goal was to keep the Maglia Rosa until tomorrow, and then reassess things day by day,” he explained. “But today went pretty well for me, so we’ll certainly have a good crack at it tomorrow. After that I’m not really sure.

“The next few stages will be pretty key for the team. It’s been a great honour for us and we’ve had a really good trip so far so we’ll try and keep the ball rolling.”